If I am honest with myself, I have to admit that had I been alive in the 1820s, I would have done it, too. I would have gone to the fields searching the shrubs for this bird's nest. I would have found a nest with a young bird just about to fledge and taken it home with me. I would have raised it on mealworms, crickets, whatever I could find. I would have made a pretty wooden cage for it, and I would have enjoyed its melodious voice, just for me and my neighbors.
Keeping Northern Mockingbirds was the thing in the eastern United States two centuries ago. As its name implies, this plain-colored master of mimicry has an impressive playlist of other birds' songs. The most versatile Northern Mockingbird might cover as many as 200 different bird songs. It will sit in the high branches of a small tree or shrub and skip from one song to another, on and on, like a DJ trying to suss out the taste of his audience.
If you wanted to buy such a bird in Philadelphia in 1828, it would have set you back as much as $1400 in today's dollars. So strong was the demand for this bird among nature-starved city folk that it was almost extirpated from some areas of the East Coast--another example of how the human desire to possess or profit often leads to the destruction of the very thing we seek. Our desire for beautiful feathers in the late 1800s, for example, almost wiped out the Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets. Our insatiable appetite for oil and other natural resources puts in danger the existence of countless species. It took us until 1973 to finally pass the Endangered Species Act, which recognizes that every species' right to exist takes precedence over our desire to possess and to profit.
Fortunately, the Northern Mockingbird's is a story with a happy ending. The desire to possess died out before the birds did. Today the Northern Mockingbird remains a very common bird across the entire southern half of the continental United States. The Chicago area is on the northernmost edge of the bird's summer territory, so it's considered a treat when one is nice enough to hang its hat here for the summer. It is a stunning bird to watch. What it lacks in color it makes up for in panache. Its proud posture, slightly curved bill, and deep yellow eyes give it an almost stern look as it prances across grassy areas, pouncing on crickets, caterpillars and other insects. When it flies up to a perch atop a small tree, it glides with an effortless lilt, flashing the bright white wing patches that are its trademark.
I have found Northern Mockingbird nests, and I have been strafed by the protective parents chasing me away. I have never taken a young bird from the nest to keep as my own, because I have been raised differently than my fellow Americans of two centuries ago. And a different legal system is in place to protect the environment from our destructive tendencies. I have no $1400 bird in a cage on my porch, but I consider myself a rich man, because I possess many photographs of this marvelous bird, and from listening to its beautiful song, I have profited more than money can buy. And that is pleasure enough for me.
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.